Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dante, Cobain, dark woods and mid-life crises

Midway through our life's journey, I found myself
in dark woods, the right road lost.
- Dante's "Inferno," Canto I, translated by Robert Pinsky

Dante may be one of the best and most elegantly transcribed mid-life crises on record. His dark wood moment came when he was 35. He was rolling creatively into uncharted territory. Anyone who has flung themselves into the creative process can maybe relate. I see Dante, solo, venturing into the dark wood. Daunting shit, the dark wood.

As timing would have it, April 5 is the day another artist found himself in a dark wood, an inferno of his own. This is the day, 17 years ago, that Kurt Cobain killed himself. I remember being a freshman at N.C. State when I first heard "Nevermind." We burned that album up--both in Raleigh and in Easton, home for Thanksgiving and for Christmas break that fall and winter. I think for anyone our age (let's paint a broad brush stroke over 30 to 50?), that album claims watershed status.

We've talked about Rimbaud and Cobain and flaming out early as creative folks. But my mind is in a different place at the moment. The image of Dante I like better than the one of him soloing into the dark wood is the image of Dante meeting Virgil while he is there.

That image hangs in a frame on a wall in our house. I remember talking at length about Dante and Virgil and the idea of Virgil as a guide, as a model, as a kindred soul, in Professor Cousineau's class at Washington College. Dante's "Inferno," like Nirvana's "Nevermind," both carry watershed status for me.

Dante and Virgil weren't homies. They were separated by more than 1,000 years. They didn't kick it together at the bar or library. Dante's connection and debt to Virgil was intellectual, aesthetic and philosophical. Virgil leads Dante through the dark wood, through hell, Purgatory and into Paradise. Some metaphorical shit going on there, no?

I'm not sure this kind of guide would have been any help to Cobain. Depression, drugs, rock-star-status, you're talking clinical, chemical, psychological baggage that was maybe just too damn heavy to carry around anymore.

But I dig the role of Virgil as guide. As a way of thinking, when you are trying to cover new ground, when you are trying to break free creatively, when you're not sure how it all fits together existentially, that hey, man, there have been other folks before you who have blazed this path; their own path, leading somewhere different, but no less tenuous for them than for you. Than for me.

So I think about Dante and Cobain today. About the mid-life crisis as another birthday is a few days away. And I'm thankful for the Virgils. Both the creative guides--Whitman, Williams, Merwin, Hass, Snyder, Simic--who have put it out there and who stoke my soul to find its own way through the dark wood. And for the real pillars or guides who have been there--my grandfathers, father, family, friends and other touchstones who clear the way in their own way, or help me back up, or are just there.

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